The Mystery of The Roman Pottery Graffiti

By adam corsini on 23 Oct 2014

Roman pot graffiti exteriorRoman pottery graffiti interior

The name on everyone’s lips at the Museum of London these past few months has most certainly been Sherlock. With the exhibition having just opened last week, our Archaeological Archive has been puzzling over a rather mysterious object that’s recently reared its head as part of the Unearthing South London project – A case most worthy of Sherlock himself, it’s the Mystery of The Roman Pottery Graffiti!

Roman graffiti is not uncommon. From political slogans painted onto Pompeii’s walls to owner’s marks etched onto pots, graffiti crops up across many a roman artefact collection. However, when our team of archive volunteers recently were working through material from the 1980s excavations at Beddington, Sutton, one piece of graffiti stood out as rather odd.

Previous blogs describe the archaeology discovered at Beddington, from prehistoric activity to Roman villa. During 1985’s excavations, as the topsoil was being removed just to the south-east of the Roman  bathhouse, the curious object jumped out. The fragment of pottery in question is most certainly roman. In fact it can be traced back to the roman kilns at Highgate Wood, falling under the ‘Highgate C’ type ware and produced almost 1900 years ago. However, etched onto it’s exterior is a name and date, most definitely not Roman

“March / F.J.NYE / 1951″

Roman pot graffiti exterior

Spinning it over, its interior also held an etched message:

“THIS POTTERY / IS FROM LONDON/ EXCAVATIONS BY / W.F.GRIMES / 1945-1 / GOOD LUCK TO / YOU ALL”

Roman pottery graffiti interior

Immediately, this pot sherd posed a problem for the archaeologists – was this site contaminated? Had roman material from other sites been deliberately brought to Beddington? And most intriguingly, how did this potsherd reach this site?

Our Sherlocks at the time were the site directors, Lesley & Roy Adkins, who began to investigate the circumstances surrounding this curious artefact. First, they had to consider the possibility that the sherd had come via the sewerage system of the modern sewage works on site. A set of dentures had survived the sewage treatment  and had appeared on site in this way, but the potsherd showed little sign of abrasion meaning it was incredibly unlikely that the item had found its way there via this method.

So next, they investigated the history of previous excavations at that site. Indeed there were several that had taken place, but none by anyone by the name of ‘F.J.NYE’ and no record of excavations in the area this etched fragment was found. And so the trail looked like it may have come to an end, the only conclusion available, that the potsherd had been deliberately or accidentally buried during an undocumented excavation, either by an excavator or visitor to the site.

As with any good detective story, luck and chance plays its part and a few weeks after the case had seemlingly been closed, a few finds from an excavation by a Mr Pratt were deposited at the Museum of London. Pratt’s excavation had taken place in… 1951! These few items had previously been held by the Kingston Museum and had been given to them by a Mrs Jones. Along with the objects was a piece of documentation including the name of the person that had given these objects to Mrs Jones. And that person was… you’ve guessed it! Mr F.J.Nye.

The Adkins hastened to find Mr Nye and soon after having made contact  with him, the full story was revealed: In 1951, Mr Nye was assisting Mr Pratt with excavations at Beddington and among their discoveries was a hearth; near this hearth happened to be a 19th century penny which Mr Nye believed had deliberately been left there as a token. This prompted Mr Nye to leave a token of his own in case the site was re-excavated at some point in the future so that later excavators could find their trench. His token was a roman potsherd that Nye had previously discovered when volunteering alongside Professor W.F. Grimes (he of the Temple of Mithras and Roman Fortgate fame) at the city ditches near the Aldermanbury postern of London Wall (close to the Museum of London today), which all took place during 1949.

I particularly like this story for several reasons; one, there are several similarities between archaeological & detective thought processes – this is one of the more unusual examples, but discoveries and interpretations in both disciplines start by following a trail of clues; two, without the Adkins investigations, the work of Mr Nye and indeed Mr Pratt may well have gone unknown. There is little record of their excavations left today except a few finds and this story; three, it’s the biography of the potsherd itself – 1900 years ago a Briton, influenced by a new Roman way of life, took some clay, popped it on wheel, formed a vessel and fired the pot. They were based in what’s now Highgate and took this pot into the city, where it was undoubtedly used until it broke and got thrown into the ditch surrounding the city wall. Around 1800 years later, the renowned archaeologist W.F.Grimes digs the ditch alongside a volunteer, Mr Nye, finds this broken pot sherd and Mr Nye keeps it. Two years later Mr Nye is working alongside Mr Pratt in Beddington, they excavate a hearth and decide to use this potsherd as a token for future archaeologists, inscribing it with a message of it’s past, present and with it’s concluding message “Good luck to You”, it’s future. The potsherd waits another 34 years until the Adkins rediscover it, do their detective work and reveal its story.

And now, another 29 years later, having sat in the archive, the potsherd will be getting another lease of life as me and my team of volunteers take it back to South London where you can view this object alongside several others from the 1980s excavations at the Whitgift Centre, Croydon, from Fri 24 Oct to Sun 26th; part of the Museum of London’s Unearthing South London project.

For more Sherlock events including tickets to the exhibition, LATE events and an interactive tour of the museum’s archaeological archive, please visit the website events pages.

Information based on an original article by Adkins & Adkins, printed in London Archaeologist Vol 5, 255-257

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